The Band Master

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, December 1991,
December 1991

Author: Grace Shackman

Demanding and inspirational, Bill Revelli struck awe into generations of U-M students. Playing under him "was a love-hate relationship," says former regent Tom Roach. "More love than hate."

"A legend in his own time" is a phrase reserved for individuals who have clearly dominated an entire generation in their chosen profession. Football has its Vince Lombardi, Symphony Orchestra has its Toscanini, the film industry its John Wayne. The bigger than life figure in the history of 1he American Band movement is clearly, Dr. William D. Revelli.

--Arnald D. Gabriel, Commander-Conductor, United States Air Force Band, in his foreword to the recordings The Revelli Years

Dr. William Revelli was director of the University of Michigan bands and chair of the wind instrument department of the music school from 1935 to 1971. He built the U-M bands into the best in the nation, toured worldwide to universal acclaim, and won virtually every possible award for himself and his bands. Today, at eighty-nine, he has only two regrets: that he did not learn to speak Italian fluently, although it was spoken in his home when he was a boy, and that he did not get to know John Philip Sousa more intimately.

Revelli met the March King in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1931. The Hobart (Indiana) High School band, founded and directed by Revelli, had just won its sixth consecutive national championship. Sousa was one of the judges of that contest, as was Edwin Franko Goldman, the famous New York bandmaster and composer, who became a lifetime friend and mentor of Revelli. After the competition, Goldman asked Revelli to stop by his hotel room. When Revelli got there, he found six of the seven judges, including Sousa, standing to greet him.

Sousa told Revelli that he had a great future, and he invited the young bandmaster to visit him when he was in the New York area. To this day, Revelli wishes he had accepted the offer immediately. He didn't, and the legendary composer-conductor died the next year.

It was a rare disappointment in a long, accomplished career. Twenty years into retirement, Revelli still bristles with the qualities that drove generations of student musicians to something close to perfection: charisma, autocratic self-confidence, and a single-minded passion for music.

It's Saturday, October 19, the morning of the U-M's Homecoming football game, against Indiana. In one of many U-M band traditions that Revelli introduced, it is also the "Blast from the Past," the annual reunion of Michigan Marching Band alumni.

Some college reunions are just one big party, but Revelli's alumni work hard. They arrived at Revelli Hall early this morning to rehearse the music they'll be performing, some pieces by themselves and others with the current band, which they call the "junior band." Among the Revelli-era alumni on hand this morning are former U-M regent Tom Roach, playing snare drum; Washtenaw County probate judge John Kirkendall, recapping his one-time role as a baton twirler; and local Episcopal priest Alex Miller, who has shown up in his band uniform but decided just to watch.

To a few friends, Revelli is "Bill." To the thousands of students who passed through the band over the years, he is either "Dr. Revelli" or, simply and reverentially, "the Chief." His legendary status among band alumni seems to be made up of equal parts of fear and awe.

Father Miller played in the band in the 1930's, spent his career ministering in Plymouth and Flint, then "retired" to Ann Arbor, where he's a busy volunteer priest at St. Andrew's. After his return, Miller recalls, he ran into Revelli in a bank. He said, "Hi Chief, I'm Alex Miller." According to Miller, the Chief replied, "I know who you are. You played the snare drum in the marching band and the bassoon in the concert band--both equally badly."

Generations of students accepted the Chief's critiques simply because he was the best--and was determined that they would be, too. "He taught everyone the meaning of excellence," explains Tom Roach. "It's not good enough to be almost in step, almost in tune. You had to be perfect."

The air is still crisp at 9 a.m. as the combined alumni-student band warms up on Elbel Field. Several conductors, past and present, stand on ladders stationed on each side of the field to take turns leading the band. Current marching band conductor Gary Lewis starts off with "I Want to Go Back to Michigan," followed by Eric Becher with "Temptation," George Cavender with the "Hawaiian War Chant," and then H. Robert Reynolds, current director of Michigan bands, leading "St. Louis Blues." An announcer, directing the action through a loudspeaker, says that Dr. Revelli will be arriving soon.

Just then, a murmur runs through the crowd as a golf cart crosses the field toward the conducting tower on the south side. There's a hush as the stocky, jovial conductor climbs out of the cart and walks toward the tower. Revelli makes the steep climb easily, then launches the massed band into "God, Bless America."

Revelli directs intensely and energetically. The band responds to him, playing with such precision and feeling that when the song is finished, some spectators have tears in their eyes. The conductor, though, hears plenty of room for improvement. "You'll do it better at halftime," he says. "Take more breaths. Think the words while you play. Cymbals--let them ring." Then he adds, "You're wonderful. I love you very much."

Revelli remounts the golf cart for the short ride back to Revelli Hall, the band's headquarters. As he heads inside, he's approached by a student. The young man asks whether Revelli remembers a certain name, apparently his father's. Revelli asks him to repeat the name, thinks for a minute, and then asks, "Trumpet?" The student nods, beams, and runs off.

Bill Revelli was born in Colorado and raised in a small coal mining town in southern Illinois called Panama, population about 1,800. His father, John, ran a theater and several grocery stores. His parents were not musicians, but his father had grown up in a small town near Milan, where his father often took him to the La Scala opera house. He instilled the same love of music in his own son. "I'll never know as much opera as my dad," says Revelli. "He knew every Italian opera's libretto, all the characters. We had an old Victrola that played cylindrical records. Our family used to wake up and go to bed to opera arias."

As far back as he can remember, Revelli always wanted a career in music. When he was only four, he formed an "orchestra" of neighborhood kids, using a small stick for a baton. When he was seven, he started taking violin lessons in St. Louis. His dad went with him the first time he took the long train ride; after that, he went alone, getting up at five-fifteen every Sunday morning in time to flag down the St. Louis train. He still remembers the cold, dark winter mornings, and signaling the incoming train with his flashlight. The engineer would give an answering toot before stopping for him. Revelli continued the lessons and the seven-hour Sunday round trips on the train until he graduated from high school.

Revelli went on to Chicago Musical College, graduating in 1922 with a degree in violin performance. (Twenty-five years later, the school would recognize his accomplishments with an honorary Doctor of Music degreeóthe first of five honorary doctorates he's received.) He went to work playing in silent movie orchestras at theaters in the Loop. These were complete symphony orchestras, playing music specifically composed for each movie. Occasionally, on a conductor's day off, Revelli would fulfill his boyhood dream by conducting the orchestra himself.

When talkies displaced pit orchestras in Chicago, Revelli took a job at a theater in Joliet, Illinois. He knew it was only a temporary reprieve, but he's still pleased that he took the job: in Joliet he met Mary Vidano, a schoolteacher. They have been married for sixty-seven years.

In 1925 Revelli enrolled in the Columbia School of Music in Chicago to earn a teaching degree. After graduation, he was hired by the Hobart public schools as supervisor of music.

In those days, public school music was primarily vocal, but Revelli wanted to do more. Two weeks after the fall semester began, he asked the superintendent if he could organize an instrumental program. The superintendent replied that the school had no budget, no room, and no time for such instruction. He also suggested that perhaps Revelli could put together a group of four or five students to play at basketball games.

Revelli felt frustrated when he left the office until he realized he actually had what he wanted: permission to organize an instrumental program. He recruited twenty-two students and arranged with his friend the chemistry teacher to rehearse in his lab before class. Every nook and cranny, in town was rifled for instruments. He borrowed a bass drum from a local jazz musician, picking it up early in the morning and getting it back before evening. For scores, he used music from his own library or borrowed from friends.

To support his band, Revelli organized the first Band Mothers group in the nation. "They were my entire budget," he says. The mothers depended largely on chicken dinner fund-raisers, with great success. Years later, when they gave Revelli a farewell chicken dinner on the occasion of his departure for Michigan, he joked, "I don't believe one single chicken is left in Indiana."

Although he had studied clarinet and cornet as part of his teacher training, Revelli knew very little about the other wind instruments or about percussion when he came to Hobart. Like many beginning teachers, he stayed just slightly ahead of his students, studying charts at home to teach himself the embouchure and fingering for each instrument.

Revelli was already commuting to Chicago once a week for lessons from cornetist H. A. Vandercook. At Vander-cook's suggestion, he increased that to twice a week, using the second trip to study other instruments with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He devoted a full year to each instrumentófirst the flute, then the oboe, then the bassoon, French horn, trombone, and percussion.

He went into Chicago twice a week for ten years. It cost him a lot of time and money, but Revelli says it paid off for the Hobart band. "This is why we won six national championships," he explains. "None of the other school band conductors were receiving this type of instruction. I was passing what I learned on to the students."

In ten years at Hobart, Revelli earned a national reputation and developed enormous community support. He created two other bands (grade school and junior high) and was given his own rehearsal building and practice rooms. In fact, he did so well that he actually took a pay cut when he moved on to the U-M in 1935. The Revellis and their two-year-old daughter, Rosemary, also moved from a large house in Hobart to a smaller one in Ann Arborówith a much higher rent.

Revelli accepted Michigan's offer to become bands director and head of the wind instrument department because he believed the U-M was a sleeping giant in the band world. He also wanted to move to the university level because he knew he could have a greater influence on music education; each of his students was a potential bandmaster.

The Michigan Marching Band of 1935 was also a step down from Hobart's. It had been a good band under Nicholas Falcone, a fine musician and conductor, but Falcone had suddenly gone deaf, and the band was foundering under student management.

Rehearsals were held in Morris Hall, an old house on State Street where the LS&A Building is now. Revelli's second-floor office featured a library and large fireplace, he recalls, but the rehearsal space downstairs was "horrible." Furthermore, the band shared the building with the fledgling radio station WUOM; sometimes their broadcasts could be heard during rehearsal, over quiet sections of music.

Revelli describes his first few years in Ann Arbor as "a building process that was anything but easy." At the same time he was rebuilding the U-M bands, he was at first the entire staff of the wind instrument department. He wondered if he'd made the right choice in leaving Hobartó"I did a lot of soul-searching," he says. But very quickly he turned things around.

Alex Miller was in the band at the time. He recalls things changing "dramatically" with the new director's arrival. "Revelli was not fussy," he says drily. "We just had to be perfect." Those who fell short were liable to be criticized publicly. "He would dress you down if you were doing badly," one former band member recalls.

Revelli reinvigorated the students he inherited and recruited new players like a football coach. As the bands grew, he also hired an outstanding staff. Earl V. Moore, then dean of music, gave him a free hand in hiring, Revelli says, and "I got the best."

His desire to bring the laest students to Michigan was indistinguishable from his commitment to encourage top quality high school bands. He worked tirelessly to improve high school music programs, networking with band directors and serving on countless occasions as a clinician, lecturer, adjudicator, and guest conductor.

"Revelli set the pattern for all young band directors to aspire to," says Ed Towers, executive director of the Michigan Band and Orchestra Association, which Revelli helped found. Retired Fowlerville band director Chuck Hills regularly bused his students to U-M band concerts in Ann Arbor. Afterward, he says, "the kids would be sky high. They all wanted to be like Michigan."

Revelli's efforts bore fruit. Tom Roach's wife, Sally, played in a high school band in Muskegon and planned to go to MSUóuntil her band director urged her to go to Michigan and arranged for her to audition with Revelli. Merrill Wilson, a high school student in Fort Pierce, Florida, chose Michigan because Revelli was the only one of the judges in a contest he participated in who took his playing seriously and gave him useful advice. When John Kirkendall was a high school senior in Burlington, Indiana, he visited Michigan because by then Revelli had securely established the Marching Band's reputation as the finest in the country. Kirkendall met Revelli, who asked him to twirl baton at a basketball game. Kirkendall did and, in his words, "was hooked. I decided Michigan was the finest place in the world."

Once the students got to U-M, Revelli worked them hard. "He was rough on his musicians in order to achieve what he desired," says longtime music professor Leslie Bassett, who played in the band as a graduate student. "In the long run, they look back and realize he was after the best in music."

Revelli's students remember how he scared the daylights out of them with his unannounced tryouts. He would go down a row and have each player perform the same passage in front of everybody. But he was very fair. Whoever came the closest to Revelli's ideal became first chair, even if they were brand new and unknown. Merrill Wilson, who went on to graduate school at Juilliard and then played in the New York Philharmonic, said he found the pressure in those later situations no more severe than what he experienced at Michigan under Revelli.

If Revelli was quick to criticize his students, he also made it clear he cared about them. According to Towers, "He was the first to know he had to have a close relationship with the students to make the whole greater than the parts." Former music school dean Alien Brit-ton, who at one time counseled all the music students, says fewer dropped out of Revelli's program than out of any other.

Revelli worked himself as hard as his students. Band directors "must be willing to make sacrifices," he told an interviewer for Impresario magazine in 1970. "My wife, Mary, very seldom sees me before 11 p.m." To spend some time with him, she would accompany him on band trips. "Mary loves bands," he noted, "and after forty-five years of listening to them, she has become a very competent and exacting critic."

Revelli's great expectations, insistence on perfection, and attention to detail worked wonders with his regular band members. But he also couldóand still canóelicit great results from other bands. Alien Britton recalls a music education conference where a band made up of the best students "sounded marvelous under Revelli's direction but like a pick-up high school band under another conductor." Britton credits this phenomenon to "a talent for keeping attention. [Revelli] can walk into a room and everyone will listen to what he has to say. His genius is that he can stand there and get everyone's concentration."

The Michigan Marching Band gave Revelli an opportunity to preach his musical gospel to hundreds of thousands of listeners. "His real contribution was the introduction of standards, which until his time were basically unknown," says his successor and longtime assistant, George Cavender. "Standards in intonation, blend, balance, tone, rhythm, and style." John Kirkendall remembers that the band took pride in playing their opponents' fight songs better than they could.

Revelli also greatly expanded the marching band repertoire. He was the first to play classical music on the field, using special scoring. " Revelli's a natural teacher," explains former band member Merrill Wilson. "He increased the repertoire to educate the public, to expose them to good music."

Although the Marching Band's major activity was performing at football games, the athletic department did not play a large role in its management. "I wouldn't have dared tell Revelli what to do," recalls former athletic director Don Canham. "But he would always keep me well informed." When he was track coach, Canham let the band practice on the inside track when it was too muddy outside. He was later instrumental in getting the athletic department to donate land on Hoover Street for Revelli Hall, built in 1973 as the marching band's headquarters.

Revelli felt the Marching Band had really arrived when it was invited to perform at the 1948 Rose Bowl, the first Big Ten band to appear there. Since it was too cold to practice outside, they practiced for their performance in a hangar at Willow Run Airport. They traveled to Pasadena by a special train that left the day after Christmas, stopping on the way to pick up band members who lived further west. En route, the band drilled at Salt Lake City and played concerts in Denver and San Francisco. Though it was considered impolite in those days for public colleges to engage in overt fund-raising, Revelli had an arrangement with GM's Buick division to sponsor the band's trip. For the last leg, from San Francisco to Pasadena, they rode the GM Train of Tomorrow, a state-of-the-art wonder with glass domes, luxurious dining cars, and electronic systems throughout.

The band received rave reviews and was invited to return to Pasadena when Michigan played in the Rose Bowl again in 1951. Tom Roach played snare drum in the band that year. (He had wanted to go on the first trip, but only two snare drummers were needed, and he had placed third out of ten who tried out.) Roach had already started law school but had stayed in the band specifically in hopes of a Rose Bowl trip. When that looked doubtful early in the seasorjióthe team didn't seem that goodóBuick offered to send the band to New York, where they performed in Yankee Stadium during the Michigan-Army game. Then, after a few lucky wins, Michigan made it to the Rose Bowl after all. Revelli calls that year's band "my transcontinental band."

They again took the train on the twelve-day round-trip but reversed the route, playing at Albuquerque and Los Angeles and returning via San Francisco, Fresno, and Kansas City. Roach remembers that band members were excited to learn that there would be five club cars on the trainóuntil they learned that Revelli had ordered the liquor cabinets locked. On New Year's night, after the Rose Bowl, he had the cabinets unlocked, but the students, having gotten up at 5 a.m., marched seven miles in the Rose Bowl parade, and performed at the game, were too tired to do anything but fall into bed.

The Marching Band played in the Rose Bowl twice more during Revelli's
tenure, in 1965 and 1970. But its most spectacular shows were in Michigan Stadium. Revelli was in touch with many important people in the music world and often invited celebrities to appear with the band at halftime. On September 27, 1958, the guest was Meredith Willson, composer of the Broadway success "The Music Man." It was Band Dayóa since discontinued Revelli innovationówhen high school bands from around the state were invited to play on the field with the Michigan Marching Band. The Guinness Book of Records lists the 186 bands that played that day, made up of 13,500 students, as the largest mass band ever assembled. When Willson conducted the huge band in his hit song, "Seventy-Six Trombones," there were 1,076 trombonists among the players.

For all the spectacle on the football field, Revelli never lost sight of his main objective, to produce beautiful music. "If you want to know how good a marching band really is," he says, "close your eyes and listen."

Revelli's first love was actually the less glamorous U-M Symphony Band, which he called "the queen bee," or the "piece de la resistance." The Symphony Band was larger than the Marching Band and always included members of both sexes. (The Marching Band was for many years solely male, as marching bands were everywhere. When George Cavender succeeded Revelli as director in 1971, his first act was to let women in; he was the first Big Ten director to do so.)

In 1937, Revelli began the tradition of making a spring tour with the Symphony Band. Initially the band toured nearby Michigan cities, then expanded to nearby states, gradually pushing farther until they had performed on both coasts and Florida, and finally touring abroad. They performed at Carnegie Hall and many other prominent concert halls in the nation, including the Philadelphia Academy of Music, Symphony Hall in Boston, Lincoln Center, Hartford's Bushnell Hall, and Chicago's Orchestra Hall. A typical review appeared in the New York Times following the band's 1955 Carnegie Hall appearance. Revelli, the reviewer wrote, "got out of his students what not many bandmasters ever achieveóa brilliant, yet luminous texture of tone, a smart-sounding ensemble, well-balanced choirs and instrumental virtuosity."

The high point of the Symphony Band's touring was the 1961 USSR tour. The band was chosen by the Department of State to represent the United States in the first cultural exchange program, and spent eight weeks in the Soviet Union. After an additional eight weeks tcturing Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Rumania, and Poland, the trip culminated in a concert at Carnegie Hall.

According to George Cavender, the State Department committee arranging the exchange originally opposed the idea of sending the U-M band, saying that a college band wasn't good enough or disciplined enough to represent the U.S. One committee member from Philadelphia, who had heard them play, insisted the committee hear the band before making a final decision. The members all flew out to Ann Arbor to listen to a concert and became converts.

The response was overwhelming. The Soviets "had never heard anything like it," Revelli recalls. The band played encore after encore, and fans even rushed the stage after performances. It was still so unusual for westerners to travel in the Soviet Union that Cavender remembers looking out of his sleeping-car window at five-thirty on a pitch-dark morning and seeing thousands of people at the station; they had come just to see what Americans looked like.

Even more often than with the Marching Band, Revelli invited luminaries of the music world to play with the concert band. Famous composers, performers, and conductors all came at one time or another. The list reads like a Who's Who of musicócomposers such as Percy Grainger, Morton Gould, Edwin Franko Goldman, William Schu-man, Aaron Copland, James Clifton Williams, Vincent Persichetti, Vittorio Giannini, Henry Cowell, Karel Husa, Ross Lee Finney, and Leslie Bassett; and performers such as Victor Borge, Doc Severinson, and the New York Brass Quintetóto name just a few.

Revelli took the band abroad a second time, just before he retired in 1971, to England, Germany, France, and Italy, with a final concert at Carnegie Hall.

Since his retirement, 'Revelli has continued to appear with bands around the world and as close by as Kalamazoo, where he recently conducted a concert by the Municipal Band. At eighty-nine, he has commitments to conduct at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago and to be guest conductor at George Mason University. He will be chief adjudicator for the Festival of Music, held in cities across the continent. He has also been invited to participate in the Discovery Festivals, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus's setting sail, to be held in Spain, the Caribbean, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and . San Francisco.

Revelli still keeps in touch with many former students and still is famous for remembering their names. Those who have known him for many years, like Alien Britton and Alex Miller, say he hasn't changed much at all since he retired. A few years ago Miller, hearing that. Revelli was conducting the Ann Arbor Civic Band, went down to watch the rehearsal. He reports that Revelli was "as demanding as ever."

That's the essence of the Revelli experience. Tom Roach sums up playing for him as "a love-hate relationshipó" more love than hate." When the Chief conducted, "a little chill would run down your spine," Roach recalls. "You played a little louder, a little better."


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Revelli with band alumnus Tom Roach. "He taught everyone the meaning of excellence," says the former U-M regent. "It's not good enough to be almost in step, almost in tune. You had to be perfect."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: As a director, Revelli is intense and energetic. Rehearsing the alumni and current bands in "God Bless America" in October, he elicited such precision and feeling that some spectators had tears in their eyes.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: In the mid-1920's, Revelli was hired to teach vocal music in Hobart, Indiana. Told the school system didn't have the budget, space, or time for a band, he borrowed instruments and held practice in the chemstry lab before school. His Hobart High School band went on to win six national championships.

[Photo caption from original print edition]: As a high school student, probate judge John Kirkendall was attracted to the U-M by Revelli's reputation. After meeting the conductor and twirling baton at a basketball game, Kirkendall recalls, "I was hooked."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Even with bands he hasn't trained, the charismatic conductor has a reputation for strong performances. "His genius," says former music dean Alien Britton, "is that he can stand there and get everyone's concentration."

[Photo caption from original print edition]: At eighty-nine, Revelli still keeps a busy conducting schedule. People who know him well say he hasn't changed much at all since he retired. A few years ago, former student Alex Miller went down to watch him rehearse the Ann Arbor Civic Band; he was, says Miller, "as demanding as ever."